Before I Go to SleepI should probably be reading the wildly popular thriller of the moment Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn but I rarely manage to keep up with current trends so, I guess, why start now. Instead I read an earlier crime sensation, 2011’s surprise hit novel Before I Go to Sleep.

Christine Lucas suffers from a rare form of amnesia. Each morning she wakes up with no memory of her life. She can’t even recognise her home or her husband, Ben. Most mornings Christine wakes thinking she’s still young, only to realise she’s actually middle-aged, having lived a whole life she can’t recall. Any memories she forms during the day are erased every night when she goes to sleep. In order to make sense of her disconnected life Christine begins, with the help of her doctor, to keep a journal and starts to see that what she has been told about her life isn’t always the truth. Probably the less said about the plot of Before I Go to Sleep the better. You just have to read it for yourself.

Christine’s fear and mistrust is terrifyingly relatable. She has to put complete trust in other people, in her husband, her doctor, her friend. Whatever they tell her about her life must be taken as truth, with no memories there’s no way to contradict them. Everyone can relate to wanting to see the truth for themselves in order to stop that niggling feeling that something isn’t right. But then for every lie, omission and obfuscation Christine encounters, there is a possible rational explanation. Perhaps, instead of someone being out to get her, she is simply paranoid? And S.J. Watson manages to make that possibility just as chilling as the alternative. I don’t spook that easily so I wouldn’t call Before I Go to Sleep scary, but it’s a disquieting and compelling novel. Watson’s concept stands out from other thrillers. There is no overblown conspiracy, just one woman trying to piece together her life. The resulting sense of dread is insidious, creeping under your skin slowly, as Christine, and you, veer between trust and doubt.

Before I Go to Sleep is a genuine page-turner. It reminded me of the film Memento (they share the piecing together of memories, albeit not quite the same harsh, violent intensity). I would’ve read it all in one sitting if I only could sit still for longer. The idea of a fractured mind and memories is unsettling and powerful. Memories are what make us who we are. Before I Go to Sleep is a crime novel but it’s also a high-concept exploration of domestic life. It’s about mistrust, terror and grief but rooted in the mundane, everyday details. Watson handles the complexity of Christine’s condition and the balance between routine and horror with ease. And he knows exactly when to divulge information for maximum effect.

Christine herself is a blank canvas. It’s the people who know her who impress their version of Christine onto her. It’s completely understandable since every morning she wakes up not knowing who she is, having to piece together her personality anew. But it does give Watson the difficult task of getting readers to bond with a character that is, by design, incomplete. But it’s a task he largely accomplishes. My only small gripe is that while Christine’s writerly flourishes in her diary make sense in context I sometimes felt the style was a bit heavy-handed given the circumstances under which she’s writing.

The way all thrillers are structured, a plot device needs to be in place to prevent the protagonist from simply telling the whole world what they know or, more often, readers are just expected to suspend their disbelief. It’s an irritating part of the formula. The very fabric of Before I Go to Sleep is woven with a solution to that annoyance, which I much appreciated. Here, Christine’s memory loss means she’s not even sure of what she knows, let alone if anything is really even wrong.

If you like thrillers Before I Go to Sleep is a must read. The build-up to the denouement is handled with skill and verve. At times I thought I knew what the ‘twist’ might be, but Watson is so adept at making you doubt yourself that it didn’t take anything away from the riveting conclusion.